The Rob Bell show airs tonight on the Oprah Network. And therefore, he is a popular topic of buzz, critique and defense from all sorts of wonderful people.
Since his book Love Wins, he has been a marked man in the evangelical world. I think it’s fair to say he’s deserved some critique for his provocation but in my opinion has also received too much hate as well. A few years ago, he left the church he founded, Mars Hill Bible in Grand Rapids, MI (not to be confused with another), and moved to California to start this show. From what I know, he hit a few setbacks, then he and Oprah hit it off, joined her “The Life You Want” tour, released a book on marriage with his wife entitled The ZimZum of Love, and kicks off his new show tonight.
I say this with all seriousness: I’m happy for him. I really am. And I am rooting for him. I’ve watched a few clips of the new show; the topics so far have been on forgiveness, mediation, and peace-making – topics he has taught on for years. From the little I could see, he doesn’t seem that much different from some of the other formats I’ve seen him present like his speaking tours and various videos. Still, it would do some of us well to remember that Rob is no longer a pastor of an evangelical church – he’s a talk show host on the Oprah network.
This obvious detail is very important to maintain. From what I can tell, the objective of a talk show host is to offer a some sort of consumable feel-good vitamin for the soul (and sell advertising). From what I know, the objective of any good preacher is to offer the redemptive message of Jesus and invite souls to receive and follow Him. It’s a very different job description.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Indeed Rob is no longer a pastor of an evangelical church but we have every reason to believe that he remains a Christ-follower. And this calls me to re-calibrate my expectations of a show that I haven’t watched yet (and may never – I don’t know if I have access to the channel). The best-case scenario is to let Rob say what he feels led to say. The worst case is … well, in my opinion, a Dr. Phil/Dr. Oz approach. Here’s what I mean.
My first concern is the nature of half-truths. They sound so good, they are the appealing part of the truth, it draws us in and invites us back for more. But half-truths are tempting to use because often the other side of the truth is certainly more difficult to appreciate. Had Jesus used more of them, he would have been been more popular. I love the parts of forgiveness, salvation, calling out the oppressors and the Father’s careful watch over every single hair on my head, but that part of “Whoever loses his life for my sake” and “being last in the Kingdom” and “humbling themselves as a servant” well, that’s not going to get people back after the commercial break. See the second half of John 6 after Jesus feeds the 5000.
My second concern is how these platforms work. It has always been concerning how often I hear, “I heard Dr. Phil say …“ or Dr. Oz suggests …” or “That’s not what Oprah says!” and it may interest you to know that I think you can take your pastor too seriously too. We’re all just human, including everyone on the Fox News network. Certainly good advice is to be sought, but let us be careful to not make idols out of our contemporary sages.
Yes, I am suspicious of anyone “big.” Yes, I am concerned with the god-complex that is often associated with any celebrity type. And if you could have coffee with me, and get me really caffeinated, I might let it slip that I am also really concerned with some pastors that I’ve met over the years, who have a god-complex. Many of whom, appear to be ordinary, out of the spotlights, more a local celebrity in their congregation. They wake up believing they need to lead their people but when that humility and mission is left unchecked and becomes compromised, the dysfyncion of a god-complex becomes inevitable. Franky, I think the nature of power and control is something that we all deal with on some level.
Many of us can and cannot relate to the Rob Bell’s. One of the questions for all of us spectating on these spiritual celebrity types is what would we do if we were in similar positions? If for a decade or two, there were adoring masses of people telling you how brilliant, creative, passionate, courageous, helpful you were and that “God spoke to me through you” that might change you a bit. When someone tells me “Tim, I felt as though God spoke to me through your message” that’s both one of the most incredible moments of my year and upon reflection, a frightening yet grace-filled moment. I imagine the weight of such words and adoration for those who hear it countless times a week in various forms – may God be with them.
I am rooting for Rob to avoid the trappings of half-truths and god-complexes. Further, I understand why his critics see this as a doomed operation. But in this post-Christian world, there is an opportunity that perhaps his critics may be missing. Is it possible that viewers will appreciate Rob and pick up a copy or Velvet Elvis or Sex God. Is it possible that some might find his old Nooma videos, or his preaching podcasts. Will some discover that his first preaching series at his former church was based out of the book of Leviticus? Bell does have a decade-worth of content drenched in the Christian narrative and it is possible that God might still use it. This is among the differences between Bell and say others who may not have such a track record.
And so, should the show be short-lived (or enjoy a long, historic streak), barring moral scandal, it keeps Bell with some workable cultural currency. Though that is fleeting and potentially soul-sucking when used not for personal gain. But when used perhaps as an offering it has the potential to be used by God for great things. Still, in the now, I am betting that Bell speaks of Jesus more than some might think. Discerning minds will ask “Which Jesus?” We’ll see.
I hope Rob does better than Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil,. I know, I know, you, or someone you love, loves these guys but to put it kindly, I hope Rob’s show does far better in terms of legitimacy and cultural appreciation. I hope Rob doesn’t have to appear before a similar Senate hearing like Dr. Oz to give account of some of his medical advice and I hope Rob has better judgement on chasing stories.
Further, even without these scandals, I hope Rob passes the “sniff test.” It’s a subjective test, and for some, he has failed it long ago and is past the point of recovery. But there is a whole audience of people that Bell has been connecting with and many more that will tune in. I think a lot of good for the Kingdom of Jesus can result from this.
There is a part of me that loves the idea that Rob will be preaching to the Oprah fan-club. This works well for my post-Christian, pluralistic sensibilities to have a Rob Bell part of our spiritually-diverse stable of communicators. May the best narrative win.
So where does that leave us? Hopefully where it leaves us with everyone else from our neighbor to our enemy to Bell and Oprah to you and me. We can encourage, we can critique, can converse, and contribute but we cannot judge, dismiss, bid farewell in a way that is only reserved for God. We must love and seek the good that Jesus is trying to show us in all things, in all times with all people.
Now that isn’t a polite send off. Rather it is as sincere a blessing as I can offer. I mean it – I hope countless people find Jesus through Rob. And if God wants to use Oprah, Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz then so be it. And should God be desperate, maybe He’d consider using me. You think that’s a line of false-humility right. Well let me be clear, If I’m unavailable, maybe God might consider using you. But this is really the point of it all. God uses people to share hope, forgiveness, encouragement bring healing, community, and salvation, – ultimately, I’m rooting for that.
Sites and Reading That Piqued My Curiosity:
“Why Rob Bell is a Better Evangelical Than Evangelicals” by Danielle Shroyer
“Rob Bell: A Symbol of Every Evangelical Who Has Been Shunned For Asking Questions” by Benjamin L. Corey from his blog “Formerly Fundie”